The Arnolfini Portrait – A Blind Merchant?

Arnolfini

There are some enigmas that never cease to challenge the world of art history. One of them is a small picture, a masterpiece by Van Eyck dated 1434, often referred to as ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’.  It is generally believed that the man in the picture in a member of the Arnolfini family, wealthy Italian traders who lived in the Flemish city of Bruges.

Looking at the picture, one cannot understand what the man and the woman are doing; he is raising his hand in a ceremonial manner, they stretch a hand towards each other, not quite holding hands. In addition to the man and the woman, two people are reflected in mirror behind them, and there is a strange huge autograph of the painter: Jan Van Eyck was here.

Several art historians tried to find a plausible explanation for this portrait. The masterful scholar Ervin Panofsky had published an article at the Burlington Magazine in 1934 arguing the picture is a legal document denoting Arnolfini’s wedding: the position of his left hand is that of taking a wife, and the position of right hand symbolized the act of marriage. The two people in the back are the witnesses; perhaps one is the artist, who therefore signed the picture with huge letters. Other art historians disagree, providing various possible explanations: it is a betrothal, not a marriage; the woman only appears pregnant, but it was a fashionable dress at the time; Arnolfini is granting his wife legal rights; it is another member of the Arnolfini family, since this lady died before the painting was created; this may be a painting in memory of Arnolfini’s wife; this is an unknown wife of one of the Arnolfini brothers; we cannot be sure it is a member of the Arnolfini family. And there are scholars who believe the iconography of the painting has no particular meaning, it is simply a woman and man in an unusual position.

I saw photos of The Arnolfini Portrait several times; but as I was facing the painting itself, as if often the case, new emotions and observations were created. I had a strong notion that there is a fundamental difference between the countenance of the man and the woman. After many deliberations I came to the conclusion that Arnolfini, the man, isn’t looking anywhere, whereas his wife’s look is rather focused. If I was examining the painting without knowing the various interpretations I would say Arnolfini was blind.

Following this hypothesis would lead to an altogether different interpretation of this masterpiece: it is a subtle yet apparent description of blindness. Arnolfini is stretching his right hand to his wife without being able to see her hand. Therefore they don’t hold hand as would be expected, but their hands are touching in an unusual way. This is Van Eyck’s artful manner of demonstrating that Arnolfini can’t see her hand.

The mirror in the back exhibits two people present in the room, yet they cannot be seen directly. Is it possible that Arnolfini himself is unaware of their presence?! Perhaps it is simply a way of directing the spectators’ attention to the question of who can see whom.

Since it is daytime, the one candle lighten in the chandelier is clearly unnecessary, unless it is symbolic of vision that is lacking. Even Van Eyck’s huge signature, with the strange inscription – that he was there – may reveal a need one feels when standing next to a blind person: to speak louder, to touch him or her, to make noise whilst moving around the room, or, in short, to make one’s presence more noticeable.

It is true that the painting doesn’t follow the accepted gestures denoting blindness in art: head leaning backward, closed eyes, eyes lacking pupils or irises, using a walking stick. But all these are typical of an earlier time, and even then, there are examples in which blindness can be detected only by a person’s facial expression.

My father, Moshe Barasch, an art historian, had written a book on blindness in art, titled Blindness. On its place in fifteen and sixteen centuries he says, “Blindness is not a central theme in Renaissance imagery. Neither in literature nor in visual art is much paid to the sightless person… the persons deprived of it are marginal, often nonexistent”. Van Eyck in not depicting a metaphorical blindness or a spiritual one; this could simply be a picture, one could say a modern one, of a wealthy merchant who cannot see

If, indeed, the man in the picture is blind, what is it that he is doing? If I had to guess, I would say he is anxious of the approaching childbirth, fearing perhaps that the child will be also an invalid. Could he be taking an oath that if the child would not be blind he would donate sparingly to the city or to the church?  His wife seems anxious too, almost fearful of the future. There are two witnesses to this oath, and a signature of Van Eyck. May God give me a healthy baby, able to see the world.

3 Comments

  • SHawn gallUP says:

    Through my own experiences in life, I have strongly arrived at the notion that artists and other creators here are connected to something the mass, the sightless marginalized and nonexistent ones are not. I also have concluded that some artists know what they are doing when they produce a work of art, like this painting, and are sending a specific message, to the present but also, not unlike some ancient structures that are surprisingly still here today, trying to send a message to the future. On the other end are the artists who just spontaneously flow forth without a specific intention but send an equally profound message and statement, and just to note that I realize both are valid and worthy and NEEDED aspects of art and creativity to the whole we share. I wanted to share a few light bulb moments about this work with you. First, this is a fully intentional message, I can see deliberate pointers in the image, and more than 1 or 2 of them. It’s very interesting that there are varying opinions about this and no absolute certainty. A lot like life. As I have noticed there may be a few valid interpretations. So then I ask, what did this artist try to tell me with this artwork? They are in the bedroom, this is clear by the furniture, so whatever is going on is a private matter, not really meant to be observed by an audience. But I cannot hardly see it, the mirror, someones are partaking in this “ceremony” and now I wonder if this is not really a mirror, as we know them to be, at all, but that other something regarding an aspect of our reality, so that these others, who are they and/or are they from otherworldly places? I know that humanity has been strongly influenced by outside interventions. I get this messaged to me, in RE: ancient sites, that when they are strongly present we are much more connected and are capable of mind-boggling achievements. But when that dwindles and is missing, things go terribly wrong, sometimes peoples and cultures go “mad” with it, struggling to get it back? I’m not sure where I am going with this now in the work of art presented, oh this is coming from what we perceive, compared to today’s progress, a much darkened period of human history. But then i’m not certain, as I am here now, and the memories are, where, in the mirror? I have long had the feeling of being observed and that we are not alone, as in the people here walking around are not the only ones acting on what happens here. I have had dreams that also allude to this. Many people sense this, and call it angles, guides, some have had “abduction syndrome” on account of things that our minds cannot properly define, due to our limited perspective. Going into this odd sense of scale and perspective in the painting. AN interesting comparison occurred regarding this signature of the artist, saying a few things, out of character with art of the time, the giant graffiti like signature complete with a modern wall graffiti statement, this character was here. I have to contemplate the association on that later but I wanted to make mention. Also I heard the song, I am blind but I don’t like what I think I see, and you all may know it, but this writer and the fellow musicians are not blind so that they are making a statement about the things that are going on, regarding the circumstances of our world and lives and what happens here, and that things are effecting and affecting this world that are secret and hidden, and yet some, artists are pointing to it and to us possibly hoping that we will wake up and start to see it, and then stop just flowing in this current and being taken into a destiny predetermined and that often ends in catastrophe, and definite ends in the death of us having awakened and realized nothing and most suffering to varying degrees while only a few having a great and rewarding life here. Maybe the artists are pointing to it on purpose, or maybe somethings are pushing them to allude to it? Another thought, it is a difficult and hard burden to know something and not be able to help anyone see it for what it is and others will not and can not, but know that you have to carry the torch, for it is only true to a few that it is better to see and know than to sweep it under the carpet or shut it, with all the other trash and forgotten junk into the back closet.

    NOTES on private matters:
    some hidden from the “blinded ones” type business about the goings on of the successful things in the world.
    This scene also flashes me back to the pregnancy of the virgin story in the new test.ment.
    His looking away because they are not really in the same room, he does not KNOW her yet, or he does not really love her, he needs to do this thing but does not want to know too much, it’s reading as an intentional aversion, looking away. If I am wrong and it’s not an act of business but a spiritual one, bringing me to the Mary story, he is not with her yet but willing to accept her even though he cannot see her yet, or know her yet. She is pregnant already yet he does not know her. More profound to us now, and very interesting choice of work to review that both messages are being conveyed here, one is great, and holds potential that is very good for the whole, the other is oppressive and holds a very sinister message, so people ultimately are involved at assisting in what will happen but if they fail to see it (either because they do not want to or just are unable to understand) and that they have to do something (they may just NOT want to do it), each their own part then what??? More of the same befitting the upper body but not caring about he back and the feet, that ends unwell for the mass the whole time and in utter doom for all, or something great and unexpected that turns the whole thing around and ends up being a blessing for the whole body, all people and earth, the project. Where the entire body is respected uplifted and made whole, each one, not a grain of sand, but a complete individual that matters with special gifts to share with all for a better whole.

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Indeed, the proportions are somewhat distorted – this has been pointed out also regarding the inner space of the room.It could also refer to a lack of ability to see properly. And aslo, Arnolfini is wearing a heavy coat. The common explanation is that it is intended to demonstrate his wealth, but that also suggest disconnection from one’s environment.
    The is something about it that is similar to The Ambassadors!!

  • John Sullivan says:

    Yes, the Arnolfini portrait could suggest blindness. Interesting.
    Van Eyck was just a masterful draftsman but are the proportions a little off in this painting aren’t they? The hands are too small?
    This painting reminds me of Hans Hoblein, The Ambassadors.

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